Fresh off the best season in franchise history, the Baton Rouge Capitals hope youth investment helps future successes in 2011
By Cody WorshamPosted May 18, 2011
It was the sports story in all of Louisiana last year.
A down-on-its-luck franchise historically steeped in on-field mediocrity and supporter apathy marched out of the cellars of failure to the champions’ podium, on the backs of both wily veterans and green newcomers, riding a surprising tsunami of success all the way to the best season in team history.
And if you’re tempted to ask, “who dat?” the answer will surprise you.
Buried in the back pages of the papers, the Baton Rouge Capitals took the national amateur soccer scene by storm, winning the Southern Conference of the United Soccer League’s Premier Development League, the highest level of semiprofessional soccer in the country. The Capitals made it all the way to the semifinals of the PDL championships, winning the third place consolation game after a narrow semifinal defeat.
The key to the Captials’ 2010 success was an in-club makeover, led by first-year head coach Stuart Hayers. Hayers, a native of Watford, England and former PDL and NCAA star with the New Orleans Shell Shockers and Lynn University, respectively, was hired by another newcomer, Capitals GM Ben Callon, before the 2010 season to right the ship of franchise that had never made the playoffs in its previous three seasons.
Hayers said he actually took the Capitals’ lack of success prior to his arrival as a positive.
“There wasn’t any pressure on me,” said Hayers, who also started as the Capitals’ regular left fullback during their title run. “I was always quietly confident that the guys I brought in would be able to bring a different level to the franchise.”
He insisted his biggest challenge was balancing his roles as coach and player.
“The hardest part about it was coaching players who were better players than I am,” he said. “I was always one of the better players in college, so having to coach players who were above my level as a player made it hard, but that’s what we had to do to be successful.”
It was clearly a decision that paid off. The Capitals finished the season 9-2-3 in PDL Southeast Division play during the regular season, highlighted by three decisive victories over the Capitals’ archrival, New Orleans. Though Hayers’ and Callon’s former team had traded in the old nickname for a new one – the Jesters – it was the Capitals who had the last laugh.
“Beating New Orleans three times was a massive achievement,” Hayers said. “On paper, our squad was more talented, but when you are playing a team that’s only an hour away, there’s a big local rivalry, so sometimes it comes down to a little more than talent.”
“All three times, our boys worked a little harder than them and wanted it a little bit more than them. That was when I knew we had a winning formula.”
That winning formula helped Hayers’ boys finish second in the division and qualify for the PDL playoffs, where the team’s talent and chemistry eventually synthesized for full effect. Victories over the Laredo Heat (1-1, 6-5 on penalties) and Houston Leones (2-1) put the Capitals in the PDL Final Four, where they rebounded from a 2-1 semifinal loss to Thunder Bay Chill to win the third-place tie against Reading United AC, 2-2 (4-2 on penalties).
“We had a young staff, but it all worked,” Hayers said. “There was a high level of respect shown to me and my staff by our players, even though they had played at big programs and had more success as players than we had as players. That’s the kind of thing that, for a PDL franchise, you need to be successful.”
But success is fleeting, and the Capitals are officially out of time to rest on their laurels. If they hope to repeat the successes of 2010, they’ll have to start from scratch with an entirely new set of faces.
The Capitals bid goodbye to key players such as goalkeeper Alessandro Salvatore, a Puerto Rican international now with the prestigious Club America in Mexico, PDL Defender of the Year Joe Tait, and his central defensive pairing, Chris Williams.
Also absent from the 2011 squad are 2010 captain, central midfielder, and team MVP Scott McCubbin and forward Scott Gordon, who was taken in the second round of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft by FC Dallas.
The cupboard is far from bare in the Capitals’ locker room, however. Callon, the club’s leading scorer and All-Conference performer in 2010, returns to lead a less experienced, but equally talented, squad.
“Ben’s got a lot of energy,” Hayers said of Callon. “He’s a goal scorer, and that’s something that’s very hard to replace. And I’m glad we don’t have to.”
Joining Callon in the attack will be James Livingston, another Brit that Hayers hopes will fill McCubbin’s vacated shoes. The Capitals also welcome Belhaven Blazers’ attacking Brazilian duo of Achille Campeon and Guilherme Brandao.
Hayers insists that the team’s strength, however, will be its young, Louisiana-based talent core.
“It’s our younger players that are a bigger strength this year,” he said. “We don’t necessarily have the resources we had last year to be able to bring in 12 to 15 out of town, international players. But we’ve done our homework on the kids in the area.”
Those players include returning midfielder Justin Portillo, an alumnus of Grace King in New Orleans who used his 2010 PDL experience to help lead Coastal Carolina to a national tournament appearance as a freshman.
Other Louisianans joining Portillo include former Gatorade State Player of the Year and Jesuit alum Steven Cabos, Captain Shreve graduate Connor Randel, and Adrian McCinnis, who lead St. Paul’s to a state championship in 2011 as the game’s MVP and recently committed to Furman University, the former stomping grounds of United States international Clint Dempsey.
“We know that they just need the opportunity to play at that level, and they’ll definitely do well,” Hayers said of the local bunch. “Overall, we hope that Louisiana becomes a powerhouse in terms of producing local talent.”
Despite the new faces, Hayers said the expectations will remain the same within the organization.
“Who’s to say this won’t work as well as our formula last year?” he asked, rhetorically. “If we don’t get at least as far as we did last year, then you could argue it’s an unsuccessful season.”
“But I just hope people see the bigger picture: that we’re giving local talent a chance, and if we can have a successful season with those boys, then I’d be happy personally.”